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Detail of a mural depicting a Moche priestess. Reconstruction of a Moche priestess.

Performance and Power: Moche Priestesses Uncovered

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Despite being an agricultural society of ceremonial performance, bold works of art, and innovative irrigation processes, the Moche (100-800AD) are best remembered as one of many Pre-Columbian cultures which practiced human sacrifice. With the elite participating as key actors in spectacles of blood-letting and blood consumption, the discovery of the tomb of the Moche priestesses served as a phenomenal find, furthering the abounding theories of the prominence of human sacrifice  in precolumbian Americas.

Yet the priestess role was not merely religious - but also tied very closely to the political hierarchy, possibly serving in roles similar to that of governors. Thus, the finding of the tombs of the Moche priestesses was not just an important discovery in the understanding of the religion of the Moche, but in the political and agricultural aspects of the culture as well.

Reconstruction of the ‘Lady of Cao’, a Moche priestess/ruler.

Reconstruction of the ‘Lady of Cao’, a Moche priestess/ruler. (Manuel González Olaechea/CC BY SA 3.0)

San José de Moro

Tombs of the Moche priestesses were discovered at a major ceremonial center by UCLA archaeologists Luis Jaime Castillo and Christopher Donnan during their first excavation of the site in 1991.

The site, San Jose de Moro, had seen many different years of occupation, noted by the "various ceramic styles" discovered on site, yet the kingdom of the Moche was considered "a small polity by the standards of…ancient Egypt or the Aztec empire."

Images of the San José de Moro archaeological site.

Images of the San José de Moro archaeological site. (Runapacha Tumbas de San José de Moro)

San Jose de Moro's earliest occupation was in 400AD, during the Middle Moche Period (300-600 AD), characterized by finds of "boot-shaped" tombs with both ceramic and metal burial offerings inside. The Moche remained at this site until the Late Moche Period between 600-850AD, and it was during this period that funerary occupation was at its height. The tombs of the Moche priestesses date to the Late Moche Period, approximately 720AD.

Luxurious Tombs

The prominent roles of the Moche priestesses are emphasized by the sheer magnificence of their tombs. These women were not merely buried in graves, but in luxurious chamber tombs, consisting of various rooms. According to the research by Castillo and Donnan, these tombs were "divided into two sections: an antechamber…and a funerary chamber where the coffin of the principal occupant, his or her offerings, and, in some cases, additional mummies were deposited." Among the offerings found in these tombs were "Sacrifice Goblets", Spondylus shell necklaces, fine ceramics, architectural models in chamber niches and the plumed headdresses so commonly seen in the ritual art of the Moche.

Ceremonial goblet with anthropomorphized weapon bundles carrying goblets.

Ceremonial goblet with anthropomorphized weapon bundles carrying goblets. (Luis Jaime Castillo Butters) This goblet was found in the tomb of a Moche priestess.

Upon the discovery of these elaborate tombs, Donnan and Castillo were initially shocked to learn the occupants were all female. In 1993, scholars were still operating under the assumption that men held the most important roles in Moche culture. It was Donnan who was among the first to realize Moche history was "recorded", for lack of a better term, through ceramics—in which there was a large number of female characters. The women in these images were often bedecked in the same brightly colored, crested headdresses that were discovered in the tombs. When considering the prominence of women and femininity in these two forms of expression, the discovery of these chamber tombs led Castillo and Donnan to determine that women held a much more valued role in Moche society than initially believed.

The Four Priestesses

There were four priestesses discovered in the chamber tombs dating to the Moche period in particular, dubbed with different titular adjectives to differentiate them from one another. They are called the First Priestess, the Girl Priestess, the Young Priestess, and the Last Moche Priestess.

The First Priestess was no older than forty years old, garbed in the clothes of the priestesses seen on Moche art and buried in a cane coffin surrounded by five other women. The cane coffin took the shape of the woman herself, as it was covered with copper discs, a mask of the woman's face, and metal plaques to delineate the woman's arms and legs. It appears that, out of the four priestesses discovered at this site, the First Priestess was the only one buried with others of one gender.

Tomb of the first priestess. San José de Moro.

Tomb of the first priestess. San José de Moro. (Luis Jaime Castillo Butters)

The Girl Priestess died very young, her remains dating her life to a short seven years. She was buried with six other individuals, likely servants or aids, and it appears that the bodies of these other people were bent before they were deposited. It is likely this was part of a ritualistic ceremony, though the specifics continue to evade scholars.

The Young Priestess was approximately twenty-five at her death. Similar to the First Priestess, she was buried in a cane coffin decorated with copper discs and metal plaques. The Young Priestess was also buried with nine others, and there was a plethora of finely painted ceramic vessels within her chamber tomb.

Tomb of the young priestess.

Tomb of the young priestess. (Luis Jaime Castillo Butters)

Finally, the Last Moche Priestess possessed the most unique of the chamber tombs, as her burial marks the point of transition from the social and political structure of the Moche Period to the aptly named Transitional Period. Buried around the cane coffin of the Last Priestess was an elaborately crested headdress, nine architectural models and two ceramic flask vessels.

The Roles of the Priestesses

Priestesses were a key part of Moche culture as "…Moche communities made little distinction between the religious and pragmatic dimensions of violent confrontations". Scholars know of the ritualistic aspects of their positions predominately through art, as the Moche had no written records.

They are known to have taken place in the "Sacrifice, Tule Boat, Burial or Animated Objects Ceremony". Interestingly, ceramics of the Moche people portray the ceremonies realistically. While the technique is highly abstract and in many ways extravagant, Castillo and Donnan recognized that the clothes and accoutrements of the women buried matched those depicted on the ceramics. The women were discovered with the clothes and accessories (goblets, headdresses, etc.) of ceremonies depicted in Moche artwork, and scientific studies have determined the women were physically strong and well-nourished, evidence of their high-standing positions in the culture. It is because of their physical attributes and religious items found with them that the Moche priestesses are believed to have been highly valued.

Gold nose clip/ring showing a priestess giving a cup of blood to a bird warrior.

Gold nose clip/ring showing a priestess giving a cup of blood to a bird warrior. (Proyecto Arqueológico Sipán, Lambayeque)

Due to the archaeological discoveries of tombs like those of the Moche priestesses, scholars have recently begun to reevaluate the political hierarchy of the Moche culture. Rather than presuming that the Moche were united under one leader (due to political and religious similarities between regions), the Moche are now considered to have been a group of independent polities that shared a common political structure. 

However, while their known religious roles were predominately related to ritualistic human sacrifices, it should be noted that scholars believe this is likely connected to their innovative irrigation practices too. Circulation and flow were important in the Moche culture, in both their agricultural endeavors and religious practices. It is in this way that scholars have determined the likelihood that the religious, political, and social aspects of the Moche were intricately tied to one another—not just in the roles of the priestesses, but in the activities of the elite leaders as well. The finds of the tombs of the Moche priestesses only serve to further these views.

Representation of a Moche priestess.

Representation of a Moche priestess. (cinabrio blog)

Top Image: Detail of a mural depicting a Moche priestess. (Peru Travel Paradise) Reconstruction of a Moche priestess. (Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles)

By Ryan Stone


Benson, Elizabeth P. and Anita G. Cook. 2013. Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru. Texas: University of Texas Press.

Bruhns, Karen Olsen and Karen E. Stothert. 1999. Women in Ancient America. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Donnan, Christopher D. and Luis Jaime Castillo. 1992 "Finding the Tomb of a Moche Priestess." Archaeology. 45.6 pp. 38-42.

Fagan, Brian. 1994. "Timelines: The Magnificent Moche." Archaeology. 47.3. pp. 12, 58-59.

"San Jose de Moro." 2009. Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru.

Swenson, Edward. "Warfare, Gender, and Sacrifice in Jequetepeque, Peru." Latin American Antiquity. 23.2. pp. 167-193.

Quilter, Jeffrey. 2002. "Moche Politics, Religion, and Warfare." Journal of World Prehistory. 16.2. pp. 145-195.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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